Flutist Dawn Weiss, teacher, event performer
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The Art of Playing Principal Flute
By Dawn Weiss

The principal flutist, along with all the other principals of the orchestra has his/her first duty to be responsive to the conductor's whims and wishes. He/she must be flexible to instantly play out fuller or softer, more soloistically or less and be able to play musically, sensitively, spiritually, spontaneously and flawlessly - particularly in the exposed flute passages.

The principal must determine from the conductor's comments and body language phrasing concepts for tutti passages and be able to relay these concepts musically to the section. He/she must be able to verbalize these ideas whenever a section player has questions and must occasionally make suggestions reflecting these ideas when it is appropriate. He/she must be the liaison between the music director and the section players. The principal must weigh the demands of the director with the immediate musical situation, always being aware of the pitch and the balance. He/she must accommodate phrasing to match similar phrases that have come before and that which is anticipated to follow. He/she must listen to the general pitch of the orchestra and often accommodates a particular section or other principal when picking up, or passing on the pitch. In doing so, the principal sets the pitch of the flute section.

The principal must be prepared with a full knowledge of the score and be able to hold sectionals, establishing the musical style and details if it is necessary, but must remain flexible to the conductor's preferences and be willing to communicate with the section - listening to ideas and judiciously making decisions. In short, the principal is the leader of the section. There are many ways one can be a leader from being despotic to democratic, etc. but it is preferable to lead by example. One hopes to set a stylistic example be prepared to explain it, and to be faithfully followed by the section.

The principal is primarily concerned with the artistry of the solo passages and the ensemble playing with the other principals. In particular, the principal flutist works in close connection with the principal oboist - often moving in octaves. The Solo flute line shifts from the violin section to the principal winds or brass. It is necessary to pull the pitch from the solo line preceding the entrance but hopefully, settles into the solid harmony created by the lower instruments, most often the bassoons or horns. This method of establishing pitch gives the greatest smoothness in transitions - the gradual shift from one section's pitch to another can be slow enough and subtle enough to avoid obvious gaps. No orchestra has perfect intonation and most players have subtle intonation discrepancies, therefore it necessary for the principal to know the idiosyncrasies of the other principal winds and string section approaches to minimize the severity of the problems at the same time playing musically, rhythmically and spontaneously. It is of great value for the Principal woodwinds to play chamber music and thereby develop good communication and pitch awareness.

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